Carson McCullers, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1959
|Born||Lula Carson Smith
February 19, 1917
Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||September 29, 1967
Nyack, New York, U.S.
|Notable work(s)||Novels: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
The Ballad of the Sad Café
The Member of the Wedding
Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) was an American writer of novels, short stories, plays, essays, and poetry. Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in small towns of the U.S. South. Her other novels have similar themes and most are set in the deep South.
Early life and education
She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia, in 1917. Her mother was the granddaughter of a plantation owner and Confederate war hero. Her father, like Wilbur Kelly in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was a watchmaker and jeweler of French Huguenot descent. From the age of ten Lula took piano lessons; when she was fifteen her father gave her a typewriter on which to compose stories.
Smith graduated from Columbus High School. In September 1934, at age 17, she left home on a steamship from Savannah, Georgia to New York City, planning to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music. Returning to Columbus when she fell ill with rheumatic fever, she changed her mind about studying music. Back in New York she worked in menial jobs and studied creative writing under the Texas writer Dorothy Scarborough at night classes at Columbia University, and with Sylvia Chatfield Bates at Washington Square College of New York University. In 1936 she published her first work. "Wunderkind", an autobiographical piece which Bates admired, depicted a musical prodigy's adolescent insecurity and failure. It first appeared in Story magazine and is collected in the The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
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From 1935 to 1937 she divided her time, as her studies and health dictated, between Columbus and New York. In September 1937 she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. They began their married life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Reeves had found work.
Maxim Lieber served as her literary agent in 1938, 1941, 1948 and 1949. While living in Charlotte and Fayetteville, North Carolina, and writing in the Southern Gothic or perhaps Southern realist traditions, McCullers completed her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Suggested by McCullers's editor, the title was taken from a Fiona MacLeod poem called "The Lonely Hunter". The novel was thought to be anti-Fascist at the time.
McCullers published eight books. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which she wrote at the age of 23; Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) and The Member of the Wedding (1946) are the best known. The novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951) depicts loneliness and the pain of unrequited love. At the time of its writing, McCullers was a resident at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga, New York.
Many know her works only by their film adaptations. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was adapted as a film with the same title in 1968 with Alan Arkin in the lead role. Reflections in a Golden Eye was directed by John Huston (1967) and starred Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. "I first met Carson McCullers during the war when I was visiting Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith in upstate New York", said Huston in his autobiography An Open Book (1980). "Carson lived nearby, and one day when Buzz and I were out for a walk she hailed us from her doorway. She was then in her early 20s, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn't palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger".
Divorce and emotional struggles
Carson and Reeves McCullers separated in 1940 and divorced in 1941. After separating from Reeves, she moved to New York to live with George Davis, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. In Brooklyn, she became a member of the art commune February House. Among her friends were W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Paul and Jane Bowles. After World War II, Carson lived mostly in Paris. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
In 1945, Carson and Reeves McCullers remarried. Three years later, under the spell of depression, she attempted suicide. In 1953, Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him, but she fled and Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills. Her bittersweet play, The Square Root of Wonderful (1957), drew upon these traumatic experiences.
The Member of the Wedding (1946) describes the feelings of a young girl at her brother's wedding. The Broadway stage adaptation of the novel had a successful run in 1950–51 and was produced by the Young Vic in London in September 2007.
McCullers suffered throughout her life from several illnesses and from alcoholism. She also contracted rheumatic fever at the age of 15 and suffered from strokes that began in her youth. By the age of 31, her left side was entirely paralyzed. She died in Nyack, New York, on September 29, 1967, after a brain hemorrhage, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.
McCullers dictated her unfinished autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare (1999), during the final months of her life. Her home from 1945 to 1967 in South Nyack, New York was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
- "Mrs. McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility. I prefer Mrs. McCullers to Mr. Faulkner because she writes more clearly; I prefer her to D. H. Lawrence because she has no message." – Graham Greene
- "Moving, yes, but a minor author. And broken by illness at such a young age." – Arthur Miller
- "Carson's major theme: the huge importance and nearly insoluble problems of human love." – Tennessee Williams.
Although McCullers's oeuvre is often described as "Southern Gothic", she produced her famous works after leaving the South. Her eccentric characters suffer from loneliness that is interpreted with deep empathy. In a discussion with the Irish critic and writer Terence de Vere White she said: "Writing, for me, is a search for God". Other critics have variously detected tragicomic or political elements in her writing.
- The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
- Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)
- The Member of the Wedding (1946)
- Clock Without Hands (1961)
- The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), a collection comprising:
- a novella of the same title, later made into a Merchant Ivory film
- six short stories:
- The Square Root of Wonderful (1958), a play
- Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig (1964), a collection of poems
- The Mortgaged Heart (1972), a posthumous collection of writings, edited by her sister Rita
- Illumination and Night Glare (1999), her unfinished autobiography, published more than 30 years after her death
- Complete Novels, Carlos L. Dews, ed. (New York: The Library of America, 2001) ISBN 978-1-931082-03-7.
- Carr, Virginia Spencer (2005). Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina. p. 5. ISBN 0-87249-661-9.
- Carr, Virginia Spencer. The Lonely Hunter. Doubleday. p. 62. ISBN 0-385-04028-8.
- "Author Carson McCullers wrote prolifically while in Fayetteville". FayObserver.com. 2010-03-28. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
- Johnson, Thomas S. The Horror in the Mansion: Gothic Fiction in the Works of Carson McCullers. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dissertation Abstracts, 1974.
- Carlos Dews. Carson McCullers (1917–1967), The New Georgia Encyclopedia, November 7, 2005.
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13.
- Carr, Virginia Spencer (2005). Understanding Carson McCullers. University of South Carolina Press. p. 124. ISBN 1-57003-615-2.
- Works by Carson McCullers on Open Library at the Internet Archive
- Works about Carson McCullers in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- The Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians
- The Carson McCullers Project
- Two different critical views of McCullers:
- Carson McCullers: A Life (Limited Preview)
- Online text of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Limited Preview)
- Entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia
- Online text of The Member of the Wedding (Limited Preview)
- Online text of Reflections in a Golden Eye (Limited Preview)
- McCullers' Papers at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin
- Carson McCullers at Find a Grave